It's a Tobacco Thing, You Wouldn't Understand: Virginia Commonwealth University and the Tobacco Industry

It's no secret that Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) shares a cozy relationship with the tobacco industry. In fact, VCU and the industry have long supported each other in a number of ways.

Interested in researching and exposing tobacco industry spin? Visit our Tobacco Portal on Sourcewatch, sponsored by CMD and the American Legacy Foundation. Join our team of citizen journalists researching and exposing tobacco industry secrets.In 1991, while other medical schools including Harvard and Johns Hopkins were divesting their tobacco stocks, VCU's longtime President, Dr. Eugene Trani, was working to make VCU more tobacco-friendly, negotiating a new smoking policy that explicitly permitted smoking in 41 out of 42 of the University's facilities. The one area where smoking was not permitted was VCU's hospital, since this would have made it ineligible for accreditation, and hence government Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Philip Morris CEO Michael Szymanczyk was the keynote speaker at VCU's graduation ceremony in 2003. In 2005, USA Today reported that PM had endowed a Chair of International Business in the University's School of Business, and that PM was at that time funding 12 studies at VCU accounting for $4.4 million. Also in 2005, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that PM was investing $300 million in a new Virginia Biotechnology Research Park and that VCU had been closely involved in the negotiations to create the facility. The Dispatch wrote that, thanks to the Biotech Park, "VCU is poised to become a partner in key areas of compatible research with Philip Morris."

Thus Philip Morris successfully carried off the greatest public relations coup a cigarette company could ask for: making the interests of a major medical school, hospital and school of public health compatible with the country's largest cigarette maker.

The close relationship between VCU and the tobacco industry alone should raise the eyebrows of people who are paying attention. While researching the relationship, I stumbled upon the additional fact that on February 11, 2000, Dr. Trani was appointed a Director of the Universal Corporation, a holding company that owns Universal Leaf Tobacco, the country's largest purchaser and supplier of tobacco leaf. According to Universal's Web site, Trani still sits on the company's Board of Directors as of 2007. An August 9, 2007 filing with the Securities Exchange Commission available online reveals that he currently owns 6,250 shares of common stock in the Universal Corporation, thereby profiting personally from domestic and foreign cigarette sales.

I called Dr. Trani's office to ask whether he or the university considered his affiliation with, or stock ownership in Universal Corporation to be a conflict of interest. The operator routed my call to VCU's News Services department. Pam Lepley of the News Service Department declined to comment on Dr. Trani's personal investments, and declined to speak for the university. However, she did explain that the University, which is based in Richmond, Virginia, heralds from tobacco country, and that someone from "outside the area" would perceive the relationship between the tobacco industry and VCU "differently." I asked if the university was aware that over 400,000 Americans die from tobacco use each year. She declined to comment on that point. When asked about VCU's longtime relationship with Philip Morris, she cited the economic importance of PM to the area, saying PM is more that just a cigarette maker. She mentioning that PM has donated equipment to VCU's School of Engineering that has nothing to do with cigarette making.

Anyone who follows the industry knows that currying favor with, and maintaining relationships with major medical and research institutions is key to the tobacco industry's ability to maintain credibility, and hence power, among legislators and regulators. VCU is certainly helping the industry on that count.

Apparently VCU feels it has gotten far more positive than negative results from its long and deep relationship to Big Tobacco. As long as it continues to feel no pain over this relationship, it will undoubtedly continue, no matter how unethical it may seems to those of us who live outside tobacco country.